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I Can’t Think!

The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.

The brain is wired to notice change over stasis. An arriving email that pops to the top of your BlackBerry qualifies as a change; so does a new Facebook post. We are conditioned to give greater weight in our decision-making machinery to what is latest, not what is more important or more interesting. “There is a powerful ‘recency’ effect in decision making,” says behavioral economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University. “We pay a lot of attention to the most recent information, discounting what came earlier.” Getting 30 texts per hour up to the moment when you make a decision means that most of them make all the impression of a feather on a brick wall, whereas Nos. 29 and 30 assume outsize importance, regardless of their validity. “We’re fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality,” says Eric Kessler, a management expert at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important.”

Part of the problem is that the brain is really bad at giving only a little weight to a piece of information. When psychologist Eric Stone of Wake Forest University had subjects evaluate the vocabulary skills of a hypothetical person, he gave them salient information (the person’s education level) and less predictive information (how often they read a newspaper). People give the less predictive info more weight than it deserves. “Our cognitive systems,” says Stone, “just aren’t designed to take information into account only a little.”

How can you protect yourself from having your decisions warped by excess information? Experts advise dealing with emails and texts in batches, rather than in real time; that should let your unconscious decision-making system kick in. Avoid the trap of thinking that a decision requiring you to assess a lot of complex information is best made methodically and consciously; you will do better, and regret less, if you let your unconscious turn it over by removing yourself from the info influx. Set priorities: if a choice turns on only a few criteria, focus consciously on those. Some people are better than others at ignoring extra information. These “sufficers” are able to say enough: they channel-surf until they find an acceptable show and then stop, whereas “maximizers” never stop surfing, devouring information, and so struggle to make a decision and move on. If you think you’re a maximizer, the best prescription for you might be the “off” switch on your smart phone.

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The Shallows is the best book I’ve come across on what the internet is doing to our brain. Keeners looking to read both sides of the story should add Cognitive Surplus to their list as well. 

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